Stilton Cheese

– in the House of Lords at 11:14 am on 2 March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Kimball Lord Kimball Conservative 11:14, 2 March 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Food Standards Agency supports the manufacture of Stilton cheese in the traditional manner; and whether the agency plans to require a reduction in the salt level in this cheese.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Minister of State (NHS Delivery), Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (NHS Delivery)

My Lords, it is important for public health reasons that we reduce levels of salt in our diet. That is why the Food Standards Agency has been working on voluntary targets for salt reduction with food producers and retailers. Traditional products, such as Stilton, are part of that process, but any targets affecting Stilton will take account of the views of the Stilton Cheesemakers' Association as well as technical quality and food safety implications. A further announcement on targets will be made shortly.

Photo of Lord Kimball Lord Kimball Conservative

My Lords, I must declare an interest. I am chairman of the Melton museum. One third of our exhibition deals with Stilton cheese. Does the Minister realise that deep offence is felt throughout the Vale of Belvoir at the Food Standards Agency's investigation of the level of salt in Stilton cheese, which is an age-old recipe, when it should be dealing with the amount of salt and fat in junk foods? Does the Minister realise also that salt is added to Stilton to drive down the moisture content and slow the development of the bacteria? Of all blue cheeses, Stilton has the least salt in it.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Minister of State (NHS Delivery), Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (NHS Delivery)

My Lords, I must put the record straight: the Food Standards Agency is developing a range of voluntary salt targets for different food categories, 88 in total, following extensive consultation with stakeholders, including the food industry. So it is not picking on Stilton or the Vale of Belvoir. It is looking at people's salt intake across the board to protect public health. Stilton is a small part of that exercise. As a keen consumer of it, I have as much interest as the noble Lord in ensuring that its flavour and quality are maintained. The FSA is in contact with the cheesemakers' association and, as I understand it, has been co-operating with it.

Photo of Baroness Howarth of Breckland Baroness Howarth of Breckland Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Food Standards Agency has had a major impact on the intake of salt through its salt campaign, which will have a large impact on the health of the nation? I declare an interest as a member of the board of the Food Standards Agency. Does the Minister also accept that throughout its work the agency has done all that it can to consult the whole industry?

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Minister of State (NHS Delivery), Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (NHS Delivery)

My Lords, I pay tribute to the valuable work of the FSA and the noble Baroness. I emphasise her point that considerable salt reductions have already been achieved in a number of food products, including a 25 per cent reduction in Kellogg's Corn Flakes, reductions between 11 and 18 per cent across the Heinz product range, and a 15 per cent reduction in Marks & Spencer's sandwiches. Those are just some of the examples where, on a voluntary basis, public health is being improved.

Photo of Baroness Trumpington Baroness Trumpington Conservative

My Lords, when I am ever going to get my turn?

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that Roquefort and Danish Blue contain almost twice as much salt as British blue cheeses and that the FSA would do well to ensure that the British blue cheeses are not threatened in this way? It should concentrate on promoting a balanced diet.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Minister of State (NHS Delivery), Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (NHS Delivery)

My Lords, I remind the House that the FSA operates and funds a specialist cheesemakers initiative to promote best practice in small cheesemaking businesses. It is as keen as anybody to ensure that customers and consumers can get the products that they want. All that it is trying to do is ensure that public health is protected as far as possible in food production processes. I am aware of the differences in salt levels between Roquefort and blue Stilton.

Photo of Baroness Trumpington Baroness Trumpington Conservative

My Lords, surely the answer is simple: should not those who are not meant to eat much salt avoid those foods, unless they are greedy like me?

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

My Lords, surely the answer is to display the level of salt on the package. Does the Minister agree that it will then be up to the consumer to decide whether he or she wants to eat that product? To have the Food Standards Agency, the Government or anybody else telling the consumer what to eat is beyond the pale.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Minister of State (NHS Delivery), Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (NHS Delivery)

My Lords, neither the Food Standards Agency nor the Government is telling people what to eat. We have a public responsibility to try to ensure that food production processes minimise the use of salt where appropriate. The examples that I gave earlier show that many responsible producers are taking notice of that public health consideration. There is a range of ways to help the public in this area. One is raising public awareness and another is labelling. Yet another is what the FSA is doing: working with food producers, which is a sensible way forward in trying to reduce salt levels.

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Spokesperson in the Lords (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs

My Lords, as the consensus seems to be that this should remain a voluntary agreement but that more persuasion is needed, will the Government devise new ways of trying to persuade responsible manufacturers to give content figures, given the implications of salt content, particularly for children and the elderly?

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Minister of State (NHS Delivery), Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (NHS Delivery)

My Lords, the noble Lord is right: that is the basis on which the FSA is trying to work with food producers and retailers. It is also carrying out a public awareness campaign in order that people can become more aware of salt levels in particular foods.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Shadow Minister, Health

My Lords, even if it were technically feasible to achieve a small reduction in the salt content of Stilton, which is very doubtful, and if that were acceptable to customers—again, very doubtful—would that not make an insignificant impact on people's total salt intake? Is this whole exercise really worth while in relation to Stilton?

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Minister of State (NHS Delivery), Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (NHS Delivery)

My Lords, I emphasise again that Stilton is not being picked on. It happens to have achieved a certain profile in this exercise. The FSA is discussing 88 product groups. The noble Lord may be right in saying that this may have an insignificant effect, but final decisions have not been taken, and the FSA is in close consultation with manufacturers and the Stilton Cheesemakers' Association.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs

My Lords, could the Minister confirm—I am surprised that no one on the Conservative Benches has asked—that this attack on Stilton is not another dastardly plot by European Commission?